12/23/2013 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Christmas Traditions


Christmas is celebrated in many different ways all around the world. In Greece the centerpiece in most households is a bowl of water with a wire hanging across the surface. The wire typically has a cross and a piece of basil attached to it. This is meant to keep the Killantzaroi (bad spirits) away. These bad spirits are said to visit housholds around the 12-day period from Christmas into the new year. I always forgo the Greek tradition of the bowl filled with water and opt instead for the more festive Christmas tree with twinkling lights. But perhaps if I paid closer attention to the Greek tradition I would not have found a carton of milk leaking in my refrigerator this morning. Apparently leaking cartons of milk and dwindling fires in the fireplace are considered the work of the Killantzaroi. I will keep that in mind for next year!

Another Christmas tradition, and one closer to my own heart, is the German tradition of the Advent calendar. The Advent calendar was first created in the Middle Ages and consisted of 24 wooden boxes or bags filled with gifts. I had an Advent calendar every year growing up, and still delight in the tradition. Another Christmas, more familial than related to any culture, is to make some sort of sweet pastry of coffee cake, to be served on Christmas morning. This job is typically one that I take on. This year I have decided to make a cinnamon-raisin coffee cake that is a yearly tradition at cookbook author Nancie McDermott's house (FYI I've made a few changes to the recipe to suit my own tastes. For the original recipe you can check out Nancie's book Southern Cakes).

Cinnamon-Raisin Coffee Cake
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Scant 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup dark raisins

Nonstick pan spray
1 cup Greek style yogurt, 2%
2 tablespoons skim milk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 3/4 cup cake flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 whole eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

To make the topping, stir together the sugar, salt, cinnamon and flour. Add the butter into the mixture. Work the butter into the flour mixture using pastry cutters, or the tines of a fork. Work the mixture until the butter is blended in, the mixture is moist, and holds together slightly when you squeeze it in your fist. Crumble the mixture into small pebble sized pieces and stir in the raisins. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 º with a rack in the center position. Grease a 9 inch cake pan, and set aside.

To prepare the cake, sift the cake flour, salt, and baking powder into a small mixing bowl. In a second bowl combine the yogurt, milk, and the baking soda, mixing well. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, with a paddle attachment, or using a hand held mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed for 4-5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add one of the eggs, and beat for an additional minute. Again scrape down the bowl, and add the remaining egg and vanilla, and continue to beat for an additional minute.

Add a third of the flour mixture, mixing on low speed, alternating wets and dries. Stir together the yogurt and milk. Add half the yogurt mixture, mixing on low speed until well combined. Continue to scrape down the sides of the bowl between additions. Blend in another third of the flour, alternating with the other half of the yogurt and ending with the final third of the flour, mix well, on low speed, after each addition.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth out and sprinkle the topping evenly over the top of the cake.

Place the cake in the oven and bake for about 50 to 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.